Sharpshooters from the Wild Blue Yonder

by Charles E. Petty

The following article appeared in the NRA's American Rifleman in January 1985. Permission has been granted via phone from the author to reprint it here. A thank you to Mr. Charles E. Petty.

The USAF Marksmanship School was born of the conviction of Gen. Curtis E. LeMay that every airman should be capable of defending himself and his country with small arms. LeMay believed that training was inadequate and that this had been well proven during World War II and Korea when, time after time, airmen missed their targets with their primary weapon, the M1911A1 .45 pistol.

The opinion was further reinforced by his experiences as commander of the Strategic Air Command, when his troops were consistently unable to hit targets, and by the number of weapons-related accidents. LeMay said, "I was irked."

When he became Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, he was in a position to do something definitive about marksmanship training. One of the first tasks was to obtain the services of someone to organize the unit LeMay envisioned. This man needed to be a shooter and also had to have sufficient rank to run the program effectively. The first name suggested was that of Col. T. E. Kelly.

Kelly was a veteran pistol shooter and two-time winner of the Twining Trophy awarded to the high Air Force pistol competitor at the National Matches. When he was assigned as base commander at Holloman AFB, N. Mex., he sponsored a base pistol team that had been successful at local matches and later formed the nucleus of a pistol team which represented the Air Force at the 1957 National Matches.

When the team returned from Camp Perry in 1957, Kelly resumed his duties and thought little more about shooting until, some months later, he received a telegram, "Report to the Vice Chief." Since it was hunting season, and no reporting date was specified, Kelly went hunting.

On his return the following Monday morning, there was another wire, "Report at once." He did the only reasonable thing, hopped in a T33 and flew to Washington. In due time he was ushered into the office of Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Without preamble LeMay said, "Kelly, the Air Force can't shoot . . I want you to outline a program to improve Air Force marksmanship."

The first task was to assemble a small staff. These came mostly from shooters Kelly knew, and quite a few airmen got orders, including a number of Kelly's Holloman shooters. Recalcitrant personnel officers were persuaded by the words, "Gen. LeMay wants these people." An initial cadre of seven officers and 20 enlisted men was assigned to the unit.

Decision-making in any military organization can be a cumbersome process but, "Gen. LeMay said do it." opened doors and, in January, 1958, the U.S. Air Force Marksmanship School was open for business at Lackland AFB, near San Antonio, Tex.

Its stated goals were:

There were also a couple of other unstated goals, with "beat the Russians" first, and "beat the Army," close behind. At least that's how it seemed to me, so I asked Gen. LeMay. "Yes, that's a pretty good goal, because when you beat them you knew you had arrived," he said.

It seems somehow ironic, but typifies the spirit of friendly competition among the services, for the first airmen assigned to the unit were sent to Ft. Benning to attend the Army's Advanced Marksmanship School and also provided with a C47 load of match ammo to get the program started. Even before the Marksmanship School was conceived, the Army had helped train a small number of rifle shooters who represented the Air Force at Camp Perry.

The Marksmanship School's first quarters were in a vacant mess hall in a remote corner of Lackland. The original pistol team leant heavily on Kelly's Holloman shooters and one, T/Sgt. Bill Mellon, went on, in May, 1958, to become the first Air Force pistol shooter to crack the 2600 barrier. In conventional pistol matches a total of 270 rounds are fired for a 2700 point possible. The score of 2600 or better is viewed by shooters as a major milestone. By 1960, 14 others had joined the prestigious 2600 club.

As I was completing basic training in May, 1959, there was a search for airmen with any kind of shooting or gunsmithing experience. Through NRA's junior program, I had shot smallbore rifle competitively and done a little fixing on my gun.

On a personnel questionnaire, in the space marked "hobbies," I put shooting and gunsmithing. The bored airman reading my form brightened visibly when he saw that and snatched up the phone. Within minutes I was on my way to report to Col. Kelly.

There I was, a slick-sleeve airman; sweat-soaked from a hike across the Lackland vastness, reporting to a spotlessly starched, air conditioned, full colonel. I stammered out the required reporting to an officer stuff, but before I could finish he waved me to silence and said, "Sit down son."

It was then that I began to suspect that not everyone in the Air Force was going to yell at me. I have little memory of the interview that followed, but it must have been OK, for I soon received orders assigning me to the USAF Marksmanship School Gunsmith Shop for on-the-job training.

I found myself surrounded by shooters, in an organization dedicated to shooting. Not just making noise either, but shooting as well as humanly possible. It was pretty heady stuff for a kid to see the greats, near-greats, and future greats of all competitive shooting disciplines pass by his bench on a daily basis. It was, in fact, infectious. As I watched the members of the pistol team work, I was saddened by my own insignificant ability and determined to learn.

As I plugged away one day at the range, a quiet voice asked, "need some help?" It was Fred McFarland, a member of the pistol team, and he became my coach. When time permitted he taught me how to shoot. He has also taught countless students since, for he left Lackland to become coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

To me, the most important fact was that I was allowed and encouraged to shoot. There were several levels of teams and, even as a Marksman, I was able to compete in matches, had the best equipment, and was encouraged. In short, the entire atmosphere of the place was shooting, and nobody was prevented from trying.

Within the first year the pistol team began to gain some recognition and set the first of many records. At Camp Perry, in 1958, it set a new mark in the center-fire team match and, according to Col. Kelly, the team held, at one time or another, every conventional pistol record except hardball.

Some have stood up for 20 years, such as the .22 team match record of 1192-65X set in March, 1964. The scorecard for that match shows that only eight shots out of the 120 fired by four men were nines. All the rest were 10s or Xs.

The pistol shooters weren't the only ones setting records. Rifle shooters in both highpower and smallbore also made their presence felt. On Jan. 28, 1960, S/Sgt. Frank Tossas became the first Air Force rifleman to fire a perfect score of 250 over the National Match Course, and at Camp Perry that year 14 of the 26 highpower team members won awards.

Most people will agree that high-level competitive shooting is mostly a mental challenge. The teams had the best possible equipment, so they set about creating the best possible mental conditions for shooting. Frank Green, who was Officer in Charge of the pistol team, described these as somewhat like group therapy sessions.

The team members would gather someplace they wouldn't be disturbed, with a pot of coffee, and discuss shooting problems. These regular sessions would focus on a single problem; often one troubling a team member, and each would concentrate on it. Green recalls that whatever the problem, someone would have experienced it, or something similar, and would be able to offer helpful suggestions.

These team meetings continued at matches, where there would be less formal gatherings before each match. The high scores of the individuals and team were not accidental. Shooting was their job, and they did it well.

Frank Green went on to make quite a name for himself in shooting by winning the National Championship in 1968 and a silver medal at the Olympics in 1964. Although those are certainly impressive credentials, it is for something else that I remember Frank. To my knowledge he was the first, and might be the only shooter, to ever shoot over 2650 with either hand. After an accident injured his right hand, Green was forced to switch hands and achieved scores comparable to those he was shooting before the injury in a matter of a few months.

Green is also responsible for a story I have heard many times and which, I think, shows something of the level of concentration the good shooters can achieve. During an Interservice Match one year, Green was behind the Army's legendary Bill Blankenship by several points going into the .45 match.

Blankenship was firing on an earlier relay and Green was observed spending a long time studying Blankenship's scores as they were posted. It appeared as if he were calculating what he would need to win, and where he could pick up the points. When the final scores were totaled, Green had done it. He had overcome the deficit and picked up enough to win by a small margin.

While the competitive teams were traveling to matches, the Marksmanship School was turning out instructors at a slow but steady pace. With only three students per instructor, class size was limited to 16-30 pupils; most of whom had volunteered for the 12-week course. The course was designed to produce an instructor capable of teaching the basics of all phases of shooting.

They were to return to their respective bases, organize marksmanship programs and teach others. They were also to be on the lookout for potential talent, for without a continuing supply of new shooters, the program would become stagnant. According to Gen. LeMay, this was a major objective . . . to spread throughout the Air Force shooters who were also teachers.

The gunsmith shop was a major cog in the effort for, without accurate guns, none of the other efforts could proceed. It was divided into several sections, each staffed by specialists. To insure availability of guns throughout the Air Force, pistol and rifle buildup sections concentrated on producing match-quality .45s and M1s.

It was here that the legend AFPG was stamped on each gun. The letters stood for Air Force Premium Grade and symbolized quality. Custom rifle, pistol and shotgun sections provided guns for the Air Force teams, and there were competent machinists to make special tools needed by all sections. There was also an extensive supply system to provide the many specialized parts and tools needed.

The custom pistol section, headed by Bob Day, was responsible for building guns for the Air Force Pistol Team. In order to qualify for use by a team shooter, Day required that a .45 average 2" or less for three consecutive 10-shot groups from machine rest at 50 yds. The requirement for a .38 Spl. conversion was 1.5".

In other words, each gun was capable of putting all its shots in the X-ring of the standard 50-yd. pistol target. Rifles had to meet equally stringent requirements as the gunsmith shop advanced accuracy work to a level practically unimaginable a few years before.

The quantities of ammunition consumed were staggering. For example, during the first half of 1960, the Marksmanship School issued more than two million rounds of all types. Cooperation of the major ammunition manufacturers was extensive, and each would send samples of a new lot match ammo for testing; if it proved acceptable, the Air Force might buy the entire lot.

Further testing would determine if the ammo was to be reserved for the competitive teams, and the balance would be available for use throughout the marksmanship school. Day recalls that the three major ammunition manufacturers cooperated in every possible way.

If a lot of ammunition was submitted to the Air Force for testing, the manufacturer agreed not to sell it until testing was complete. There was, of course, an incentive for the manufacturer. In addition to the fact that the Air Force was a substantial customer, it would certainly be an impressive sight for a civilian competitor to see all the members of the team shooting a given brand of ammunition.

He remembers that each of the three, Remington, Winchester and Federal, had their strong points, but all produced ammunition that was capable of extraordinary accuracy. There was also an extensive supply of reloading equipment to produce specialized ammunition needed, particularly by rifle shooters.

As we traveled to matches, I had the opportunity to look at the guns, particularly .45s, being used by other competitors. I became convinced, even allowing for a certain bias, that the Air Force guns were second to none.

I don't think I was alone in that opinion for, at one of the major matches, two Army shooters, who must have been having a bad day, were overheard discussing the licking they were taking from the Air Force. One said to the other, "What does it take to beat them?" The other shooter was heard to reply, "We could if we had their guns!"

Maybe so . . . maybe not . . for one has only to look at the record books to see that the Army was, and is, the dominating force in competitive shooting. Still, I can't help but wonder what might have been, had the Air Force not abandoned competitive shooting.

In July, 1969, the Marksmanship School as we knew it ceased to exist. Several reasons are given, but foremost of these was money. It was staggeringly expensive to field teams in all the shooting disciplines and the instructor program wasn't cheap either. It was at the height of the Vietnam War and money was tight, perhaps too tight to fund a program that some viewed as a luxury.

In November, 1983, a reunion was held at Lackland to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Air Force marksmanship training. Former Marksmanship School people came from all over the country to get together with old friends and to see what is happening now. The event was sponsored by the 3290th Technical Training Group, which is a direct descendant of the former Marksmanship School.

Its current responsibilities include teaching basic trainees with the M16 and security police with a variety of weapons. They are known throughout the base as "Red Hats" for the red baseball caps they wear with the words "Combat Arms" proudly displayed. This is a new term for a job specialty involving all types of small arms in the Air Force.

Three days of activities were planned, topped off by two pistol matches held on the final day. The first match was for oldtimers only, and was fired with GI-issue .45s. The Air Force sidearm is now the Smith & Wesson Model 15 revolver, so the guns had to be borrowed from the Marine Corps and they were strictly GI. Never have so many Master-class shooters shot so many fives.

The second match pitted a team of oldtimers against the best of the 3290th instructors. It was hotly contested, with cheers and jeers exchanged between the two camps. The oldtimers had to shoot the Model 15, and some were heard to cry "foul," claiming they had never fired a revolver, but the years of experience paid off and they won anyhow.

The result of the match was not really as important as the opportunity it provided for the youngsters to meet and talk to veteran shooters, some of whom are Air Force legends. There is no doubt that the kids learned something that day, for you could see them gathered around some of the oldtimers, deep in discussion, and a few shyly requested autographs were given. It was nostalgia at its best.

In recent years, the Air Force has begun to renew its interest in marksmanship. Training requirements have been strengthened, and competitions leading to Distinguished medals have been reintroduced. In a recent interview, Gen. LeMay commented that the need for marksmanship training in the Air Force is no less valid today. "I doubt we will see a major nuclear war, but there will be lots of little banana wars where small arms will be important. Competitive shooting is one of the best possible training grounds."

U.S. Air Force Competitive Shooting Teams